As the founder and one of the directors of GrowTraffic – a company deeply rooted in community engagement and fostering growth for businesses – I found myself profoundly moved by Sir Keir Starmer’s impassioned speech at the 2023 Labour Party Annual Conference. His articulate vision of a ‘Fairer, Greener Britain’ resonated with some of the core values we uphold at GrowTraffic.
His anecdotes about life were so relatable that they felt like snippets from my own journey. I must admit, I haven’t felt this way about a political speech in a very long time, if ever.
“At some point in your life, many people here will have heard a nagging voice inside, saying no this isn’t for you. You don’t belong here. You can’t do that. Working-class people certainly hear that voice, trust me. In some ways – it’s the hardest class ceiling, of all.” I’ve been there.
“My Dad felt the disrespect of vocational skills all his life. But the solution is not and never will be levelling down the working class aspiration to go to university.” For this business-owning, university-educated son of a joiner, this one really resonated.
Starmer promised to restore Britain’s broken institutions and end the “age of insecurity” we’ve all been living through where we’ve just been left to drift, stagnate and decline. There were plenty of catchy slogans to go with, but I also think there was substance in there, too.
Let’s face it, over the last 15 years or so, we’ve been through some hard times. It’s been a lot. Starmer said: “Changing a country is not like ticking a box” and that the next government should aim at rebuilding a crumbling public realm, modernise an economy left behind by the pace of technology and build a new Britain “out of the trauma of collective sacrifice”.
He called out the planning system, saying it’s a “blockage that stops this country building roads, grid connections, laboratories, trainlines, warehouses, windfarms, power stations” and ‘an obstacle to the aspirations of millions.” Having finally got to the end of years of working on the acquisition of an old Church of England building, I can confirm the way the planning system works can seriously damage and delay the progression of property development.
He placed a big emphasis on the ‘big build’ and the promise to ‘get Britain building again’ signifies a forward-thinking, constructive approach to addressing the housing crisis. It’s about ensuring home ownership isn’t just a distant dream for many, but an actual reachable goal. The prospect of new towns, especially if they can be built around the borders of England and Scotland and England and Wales, captivates me. It brings a promise of fostering new inter-related communities within the United Kingdom, which would be a stepping stone towards a more united and integrated society.
Talking about new towns he said: “Where there are good jobs, where there is good infrastructure, where there is good land for affordable homes, then we will get shovels in the ground, cranes in the sky, and build…” He added that whilst protecting green spaces and the environment that where space is free and suitable, beautiful Georgian-style towns will be built from the ground up. I’m not sure we need a proliferation of mock Georgian towns and whilst putting the new towns where there are already jobs may have some merit, I think we need to be more radical. I’m all for building on the “grey belt” as he called it, but let’s think much bigger! We could create new towns where there aren’t jobs and where the infrastructure can be improved to really facilitate a jumpstart to local economies that may be slumbering miles from other metropolises.
In a time where many of us are grappling with soaring energy costs (even now our gas and electricity bills hover around £550 a month), Starmer’s mention of a new national entity, the Great British Energy, kindled hope. A publicly owned energy company could be a game changer in reducing bills for families and businesses, mitigating the financial strain many are under.
As a reformed landlord myself (we sold up years ago), I was keen to hear plans from this government-in-waiting to tackle the private rental sector, especially plans concerning small landlords. These landlords pose a big challenge to social mobility and intergenerational wealth. But I didn’t catch any mention of this and the silence speaks volumes.
I have nothing against landlords. Yet, I feel getting buy-to-let mortgages should be tougher. Landlords should have to hold high levels of equity before buying. I also think small landlords should join mutual property management firms to spread the risk. Landlords with just a house or two are managing properties worth a lot but on really tight budgets. This setup is risky and renters stand to lose the most.
Education and NHS reform were other cornerstone themes in Starmer’s address. His resolve to level the playing field, ensuring everyone, irrespective of their background, has a fair shot at success, is a testament to his inclusive vision. The ambition to nurture a new generation of skilled professionals through enhanced education and training is a forward-looking step towards fostering innovation and economic growth.
Discussing the removal of tax breaks for private schools and refreshing the national curriculum he said: “More expert teachers in the classroom. More creativity, speaking skills, confidence. Shatter the class ceiling at source.” I pray this also includes high degrees of digital literacy and a focus on digital problem-solving, because that’s what will make us win as an economy in the future. It’s certainly the skills that we look out for in prospective employees.
Starmer’s insight into addressing the threat of nationalism and his call for a unified, inclusive society couldn’t have come at a better time. The divisive narrative that has plagued our country needs to be replaced with a more harmonious discourse. The ‘decade of national renewal’ he speaks about should not just remain a political slogan, but materialize as a rallying cry for collective action towards a better, more prosperous Britain.
Earlier this week Rachel Reeves told the conference a Labour government would “tax fairly and spend wisely,” with her message being about the benefits of economic growth to fund public services and to boost investment through a new national wealth fund. I think the reality is we will need to spend. We’ve got a serious housing crisis, our public services are bursting at the seams and the health service is creaking. I’m not sure we can do that without imposing tax increases or deepening the public debt. But the thing is, I think people understand we’ve not invested for a long time and that a new government will have to invest. Whilst it’s got to be right to increase the tax burden of the wealthy at such a time, I think we – the general public – would also be prepared to shoulder a bit more of a tax burden in the short term if we knew the tax collected would be strategically applied.
Whilst the idea of fair taxation is appealing, it got me thinking about my own situation as a business owner.
A significant portion of my income comes from dividends, which are taxed at a lower rate compared to income through PAYE. While it’s reasonable that business owners who contribute to job creation and economic growth enjoy certain tax advantages, especially in the early stages of a venture where profits may be slim, I believe the current tax break on dividends could be revisited.
Increasing the tax rate on dividends while lowering corporation tax could be a more balanced approach. This change could encourage businesses to reinvest profits, potentially leading to higher salaries, new job opportunities and overall internal business growth. It’s a shift that aligns with the broader goal of stimulating economic activity while ensuring a fairer tax structure.
The proposition of altering the tax landscape in this manner might not only lead to increased internal business investment but could also resonate with the ethos of fostering a more equitable economic framework. It’s these nuanced discussions and considerations that I believe need to be part of the larger discourse as we contemplate the policies proposed by potential future governments.
I loved it when he said: “What is broken can be repaired, what is ruined can be rebuilt.”OK, it’s a rhetorical flourish but at a time when everything feels broken, this is just the message of hope I think we need.
The essence of Starmer’s speech stirred a sense of responsibility within me. It underscored the imperative to contribute positively to our community and country. With the right leadership and collective effort, a future of possibility and growth is well within our grasp, challenging the narrative of decline that has overshadowed us for too long.
Starmer said Labour would “work hand in glove with the private sector to rebuild this country.” saying: “understand that private enterprise is the only way this country pays its way in the world.” As a business owner, I am now contemplating the roles we – as individuals and organisations – can play in shaping this envisioned future. It’s a clarion call for us all to engage actively in the socio-economic discourse of our country and to contribute, in whatever capacity we can, towards its rebuilding and renewal.
There is still time before the next general election for the Labour Party to develop some bolder economic policies because I did feel these were missing from Starmer’s speech. He promised to devolve power to towns and cities across England, giving them the same kind of powers enjoyed by London, Greater Manchester and the West Midlands. But why stop at England? This should also be about Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The mission for growth has its foundation in a new devolution agenda, which has to be the right way to go, except being constantly caught in the whirlpool that sloshes funds to London.
For the first time in a long time, I dared to believe that this country doesn’t need to be in a state of terminal decline. This speech has rekindled a flame of optimism, urging us to take the reins of change into our own hands.
I’m aware I’ve reviewed and considered this speech as though I think this is some of the policy of the UK’s next government. Right now, I hope it is.
Let us all be part of this promising vision towards a ‘New Britain’, embracing the spirit of community engagement, social impact and a future ready to unfold with opportunities for all.